It's my favorite part of every hi-fi show: the one big room, usually on one of the lower floors, where smaller companies exhibit such things as phono accessories, hi-fi furniture, publications, and, best of all, records. At Capital Audiofest, the Magnolia Ballroom on the Sheraton Hotel's fourth floor was home to all that, including a larger and altogether more impressive selection of used and collectable vinyl than I've seen at any other show in recent memory.
Among the people I telephoned during my first month on the job at The Absolute Soundwe're talking January of 1985was Frank Van Alstine, the pioneering designer and builder of affordable-perfectionist electronics. Twenty-eight years and six months later I finally got to meet himand I was happy to hear he has zero intention of retiring: good news, considering the altogether fine sound being made by the new Audio by Van Alstine Transcendence Nine vacuum tube preamp ($1395), used in concert with AVA's hybrid FET Valve 600R amplifier ($3499) and a pair of Philharmonic Audio's two-way Philharmonitors ($850/pair).
I can see already that this show has something in common with my favorite audio designers, audio dealers, audio writers, and audio enthusiasts: Capital Audiofest is an event with a distinct point of view. That this point of view mirrors my own enthusiasm for vintage gear in particular and relatively affordable, anti-(high-end) establishment gear in general, is icing on the cake.
That said, it turns out I began my first day at CAF with a somewhat conservative system: a pair of GT Audio Works GTA2 loudspeakers ($6495/pair, above) driven by a pair of very powerful Arion class-D monoblocks ($7500/pair), with a Dodd battery-powered tube preamp ($1750) and Plinius CD 101 CD player (($3300), assembled with various cables from Triode Wire Labs.
John Atkinson is a road warrior: When he attended the DC area’s Capital Audiofest in July of last year, he drove there in his vintage Mercedes-Benz coupe, all the way from his home in Brooklyn. He did the same in 2011, too.
Because I regard night driving with the same revulsion that Dothraki horsemen reserve for travel by sea, and because any round trip between upstate New York and our nation’s capital is bound to include at least some driving after dark, I took the train.
The only thing better than a review that writes itself is a product with a compelling story. Although the latter asks a little more of us here, it's usually the more enduring pleasure.
So it goes with the new AX-5 amplifier ($9950) from Ayre Acoustics, in which designer Charles Hansen has both revived an overlooked technology from a half-century ago and brought to market a more affordable embodiment of one of his own most well-received products.
The closest I've come to airing my thoughts about live vs recorded music was in the "As We See It" of the December 2005 Stereophile, "Resistance Is Futile," in which I put as many miles between the two as I could. I described live performances as works of art that exist only at the time and place of their making, variables from which their ultimate impact can never be separated; and music recordings as works of art in their own right, albeit ones that require a great deal more from the listener in order to succeed to their fullest. People respond more positively to live music not because it sounds more real, but because they understand, consciously or not, that any performance is a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Swiss Precision: The Story of the Thorens TD 124 and Other Classic Turntables (2007), by Joachim Bung (reviewed in April 2008) also tells the story of Fritz and Marie Laeng, the couple who founded Lenco, Switzerland's other turntable company. Thanks in equal parts to Fritz's engineering talents and Marie's business acumenher idea to sell turntables through a popular book-and-record club is remembered as the company's turnaround pointLenco swiftly became one of the most successful and well-regarded makers of hi-fi turntables through the 1960s and early '70s. Then, almost as swiftly, Lenco went from having three factories in two countries to vanishing from the scene with scarcely a trace . . . but that's another story for another day.
No history of the computer-audio marketplace could be complete without some mention of High Resolution Technologies, the California company whose Music Streamer was, in 2009, the first perfectionist-quality USB digital-to-analog converter to sell for as little as $99. One could argue that HRT's entire business model has contributed to shaping our attitudes toward the hobby: Because digital-audio technology continues to evolve at such a rapid pace, HRT has introduced a succession of newer and ever more effective Music Streamers, occasionally to the obsolescence of their predecessors; yet because those products have all been so affordableremarkably and laudably so, given their thoroughly American provenancewe tend not to mind.
Monday, January 14, was a difficult day for the abandoned amusement park that is my body. In the morning, I packed two Lamm ML2.2 amplifiers into their wooden crates and wrestled them outside for collection by some unlucky air-freight courier. After that, I backed up my car to the tiny front porch of our house so I could unload a pair of 1966 Altec Valencia loudspeakers I'd collected the day before: in excess of 100 pounds each, just like the crated Lamms, but considerably larger.
Bratty, mollycoddled, and altogether spoiled consumers such as you and I have inflicted on computer audio the same injustice that laparoscopic surgery, antilock brakes, mobile telephones, word processors, e-mail, microwave ovens, and over-the-counter proton-pump inhibitors have suffered at our hands in recent years: In less time than it takes to say "ho-hum," we've knocked it from the pedestal to which all such breakthroughs are entitled and begun taking it for granted.